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  • That Was Genius Team

Episode 26 - Hell Hath No Fury Like 300 Spearmen in Heels (Homosexuality Week)

Updated: Apr 18, 2020

Sam's Episode Notes: The love of Sergius and Bacchus

I'm bringing you the classics two weeks in a row today Tom, because last week I did the Greeks, this week I'm taking you to ancient Rome. Or more precisely, ancient Syria within the Roman empire, and the late 3rd and earthly 4th Century AD.

Step forward two friends and secret Christians called Sergius and Bacchus, who were senior staff officers in the imperial army in Syria. Sergius was the army's primicerius, one of its senior administrative officers, and Bacchus was the secundarius, his underling.

The two are now revered as vital saints to the gay Christian community, because their story crosses over between traditional Christian persecution for believing what you like against the odds, and sexual persecution for loving who you like against the odds.

Because as well as being secret Christians, it's believed by many, Tom, that they were also lovers. Now, this claim comes from one John Boswell, a Us historian who made the claim in the 1990s. It's been widely refuted by other historians, but is a very popular story. And frankly, there are so many holes in this story, like most hagiography, that it's all probably balls anyway, so it's as good an interpretation as any.

What's more likely is that they were Erastai, which is kind of pederasty. That's a word we've used before in this podcast – it's a Greek and Roman tradition where the older boy would show a younger friend or prodigy they ways of the world and how things worked, including, quite odften, how that thing worked. So it was a sort of friends with benefits mentoring system with the added benefit that since the boys were chasing each other rather than the daughters of the local nobility, you'd be far less likely to end up in unwanted pregnancies and wasting a good son on a politically awkward marriage. So, Sergius and Bacchus were very much friends with benefits, but probably not together in the way we'd think of today.

Now Rome at this time was still very much a Pagan empire, worshipping myriad gods with myriad practices, and among these myriad faiths and cults were the early Christians. Now, the Christian faith went through several periods of tacit acceptance and persecution in its early years. There were quite a few senior Christians in the empire and various imperial staff, and they were usually accepted as long as they worshipped the other Roman gods as well, and payed homage to the emperor.

Sometimes, interestingly, they were forced to publically offer sacrifice to the Roman gods in order to be granted special certificates of licences of loyalty, which most bought forged on the black market. Those who refused were arrested for impiety and often jailed or killed – but that applied to members of many newer sects who refused to offer sacrifice to the old gods and the emperor, not just Christians, so it's up for debate as to whether you can really say it was a Christian persecution or just a non-Roman conformist persecution. It was also highly localised, so depending on your governor you could live in a very religiously liberal province, or a very conservative one. Generally the closer you got to Italy the more conservative it got.

Anyway, all this changed in 303, with the start of the Diocletianic persecution. The emperor was a big fan of the old Gods, who he saw as bringing stability to the empire, and saw the rapidly spreading Christianity as a threat to Roman moral fabric, so he set about systematically targeting the faith. As a result, many Christians began to keep their faith a secret for fear of sticking their heads above the parapet and getting it lopped off. By all accounts this was actually something of a show – the public didn't mind Christians and were apathetic towards the persecutions and reporting their neighbours and friends, and even Diocletian himself appointed several Christians to high positions in Government. But it was best not to be too vocal about your faith.

So, Sergius and Bacchus. They were born in Syria but were Roman citizens, and served in the army in Syria as well, where they gained lots of imperial favour particularly among the emperor Maximian, and very high status.

But all that came crashing down in 303 AD, when they refused to enter a Pagan temple with a visiting Roman dignitary, the emperor Galerius, and his bodyguards.

Uh oh, not a wise thing to do when Rome has just started persecuting your lot and you already need a licence to say that you worship the old gods.

Incidentally, Tom, I'm mentioning a lot of emperors here, which is confusing, but that's because there were a lot of bloody emperors floating around at the time. It was a period known as the Tetrarchy, where Rome was still one empire, but had two senior and two junior emperors running it at the same time, usually one more militarily inclined pair and one more administrative and political pair. And given that there was also a habit of emperors to get killed, overthrown, rebel or get evicted, there's a lot of names floating about.

They were summoned to the court of the emperor Galerius, who tried repeatedly to convince them to sacrifice to the Olympian god Jupiter. When they refused, he had them demoted and tortured. And it sounds like they had a pretty horrible time, Tom.

For a start they were dressed in women's clothing and paraded through the streets, which seems to be a common shame punishment at the time.

They were then sent off to be tried for their crime of impiety. They got a pretty sweet deal – it was arranged that the judge would be a guy called Antiochus, a senior military officer and old friend of Sergius. He gave them as much leeway as he could but the pair still refused to renounce their faith or accept the Olympian gods, so they were taken off and tortured. Bacchus was pretty quickly beaten to death, but the next day his spirit appeared before Sergius, telling him to be strong and endure his punishment so that they could be together forever in heaven.

Sergius was beaten, marched around with wooden boards nailed to his feet, and eventually beheaded at a place called Resafa in Syria, a town just outside Raqqah which was later named Sergiopolis in his honour.

And the church loved them for it Tom. They are two of the earliest known martyrs and revered as a vital pair of saints in the church, particularly the Eastern and Eastern European churches, where they are revered as military protectors. In fact they are probably two of the most important paired saints in Christendom precisely because they stuck together through thick and thin. There's a feast to them every year on October 7th, and dozens of major churches dedicated to them around the world. They are always shown together and venerated together, never to be separated. Aah.

Of course, these churches do tend to overlook the whole probably sleeping together thing. And this story of two men loving each other in the face of adversity has obviously been a huge inspiration to gay people in the church, who ironically now and in the last few centuries have faced exactly the same persecution for their own beliefs. Because what's a little bit of hypocrisy?

I said earlier though that it's all bollocks, and it probably is, so let's tear the story apart a bit.

Actually the gay or at least sexually experimental side of it is the most likely part of the story, despite being the most controversial bit. The account of the saint's story, their passion, was written hundreds of years later and gets so many things wrong. The emperors in the story are wrong for the time. The idea that two senior officers in the army would be secretly Christian is nonsense – they supposedly died the same year the persecutions began and before that Christians were usually quite public. The places don't add up. There's a bit in the story about monks finding the bodies, which they couldn't have as there's no evidence of any monastery for miles around. In fact, it's entirely likely that the stories of Sergius and Bacchus and an earlier lost story, possibly of saints Juventus and Miximinus, got confused and conflated.

But that's not important, Tom it's the symbolism that matters, because it would be totally unlike a religious organisation to centuries later ascribe one interpretation of a possibly entirely fictitious event as the sole and true interpretation, overlooking all other interpretations and nuance, and then persecute dissenting voices and individuals based on that one interpretation.

And it would be entirely unlike organised religion to claim victimhood for centuries and then persecute its own followers or outsiders in exactly the same manner for exploring their own personal beliefs.

In short, love who you want to love, because if there is a God, he doesn't care whether you're gay, straight, Roman or barbian. Although if you don't want to get killed, he probably also doesn't care if you sacrifice a goat to Jupiter once in a while either.

Tom's notes: Pelopidas, Thebes and the Sacred Band

· Plutarch’s Parallel Lives

o Lucius Mestrius Plutarchus

o Greek Biographer of the 1st to 2nd Centuries AD

o Chapter comparing Pelopidas with Marcellus

o Best source of information for the Sacred Band


· An important city during the Mycenean period up to the late Bronze Age Collapse we discussed last week

· It emerged out of the Greek Dark Ages, into the Archaic Period (8th Century BC to 480BC; Second Persian Invasion of Greece) and the Classical Period (4th and 5th Century BC) as a significant city state or Polis

o Alongside Sparta and Athens

o Not enough time to go into details but allegiances between the main city states (and the other city states) changed when faced with the external threat of the Persian Empire

· In terms of myth, Thebes is closely associated with Herakles and Dionysus (the fun god; wine, theatre, madness, ecstasy, fertility) amongst others

· Lots of Athenian plays are set in Thebes (probably because it allowed the Athenians to explore dark themes of violence, incest etc. without things being too close to home)


· Sounds like a comedy Greek name

o Testikles – the ballsy warrior

o Spectakles – the short sighted statesman

o Popsicles – the permanently cold philosopher

o Recycles – the playwright who wrote ‘pizza boxes go in the green bin’

o Debacles – the poorly prepared military commander

· From an honourable and wealthy Theban family

o Plutarch has lots of great moral teachings: QUOTE 1

§ Opening of the book on Pelopidas actually sets up the biography by describing how a general should not give away his life easily. He should not fear death, but should not show disregard for life; his and other peoples. Don’t be impetuous and seek opportunities for heroic deeds for glory

o Pelopidas is very charitable with his wealth and he lived modestly

· Best friend; Epaminondas (E-pam-e-nondas) a king of Thebes

o Pelopidas was fit and strong

o Epaminondas was intelligent and wise

o The two worked excellently together

o At the Battle of Mantinea (385BC), the two fought for Thebes in alliance with Sparta against the city of Mantinea

§ Pelopidas was severely wounded but Epaminondas came to his aid and defended him bravely before the Spartan king rescued them both

· At a later date the Spartans, with support from within Thebes, attacked Thebes and took the town. The Spartans had been envious of Thebe’s growing power

· Pelopidas was a key players in a successful scheme amongst Theban nobles to re-enter the city and take it back from the Spartans and their Theban allies

o Pelopidas was then elected a co-leader of Thebes

o This apparently is when the concept of the Sacred Band is created (probably built on earlier concepts)

· Athens decided to side with Sparta as it led a military campaign into the lands surrounding Thebes that were loyal to Thebes (sphere of influence)

· Sparta saw that Athens had pissed of Thebes, and so one of its generals attempted to take Athens, knowing that Thebes would not support them

o Athens and Thebes thus teamed up against Sparta

Battle of Teygra; 375BC

· Pelopidas finds himself in a position where they need to fight a much larger force of Spartans

o 300 Thebans; their crack fighting squad, the Sacred Band (hoplites)

o Spartans; as many as 3 times as many men

o This was the first time a numerically superior Spartan army had been defeated

§ It blew apart the idea that the Spartans were unbeatable

· This is where we find out about the Sacred Band


· Not sure of this is a euphemism…


Battle of Leuctra; 371BC

· The Spartans and the Thebans again

· Over 10,000 Spartans; the best hoplites formed a phalanx on the right wing

· Around 6000 Thebans

· Both sides had skirmishers and cavalry too

· The Thebans lined up in oblique order; focussing their attention on the right flank of the numerically superior Spartans.

o Phalanx 50 deep as opposed to 8-12 deep

o The rest of the line just needed to hold

o This allowed them to win locally, causing confusion amongst the enemy

o Epaminondas led the Thebans and Pelopidas led the Sacred Band into battle towards the end of this manoeuvre to ensure its success

Battle of Chaeronea (338 BC)

· Move forward 33 years

· The Macedon empire is forming under Philip II; father of Alexander the Great

o The Macedonian sarissas (longer spears) in phalanx formation prove to be too much for the Thebans and they are defeated.

o All 300 of the Sacred Band are killed

Theban Culture

· Philip II actually spend time in Thebes as a youth as a prisoner

o Apparently he had a homosexual relationship with a Theban general

· Pederasty was rife in Theban culture

o Older male and adolescent male

o Even a strong theme in their mythology

§ Founding myth involved a character called Laius raping a king’s child

§ Herakles supposedly had a gay relationship with Iolaus and there was shrine to him in Thebes where the Sacred Band members made vows to each other

§ There’s homosexuality in the story of Narcissus also

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